What can new parents teach us about sustainable lifestyles?

Last week I took part in the Unilever Sustainable Living Lab, an online initiative to crowdsource solutions and share information on the key sustainability challenges for the company. (Disclosure: I used to work in the sustainability team at Unilever. But this post isn’t really about them…)

Unilever knows that 68% of its environmental impacts happen at the consumer use stage, chiefly due to the use of hot water during showers, baths and laundry. That means that consumer behaviour change is a key issue for them, as it will be for many companies in the coming years.

I was particularly interested in comment made by Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, during the lab: that Unilever is looking at ‘concerned caregivers’ as a key audience for change. We’ve known for some time that people at a transition in their lives are more open to change – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that those who have their children’s future to think about should care about it more.

But do sustainability-related behaviours really change when you become a parent? (And can the change possibly be in the right direction?)

Well, as a new ‘concerned caregiver’ myself, I’ve been looking out for changes in my own behaviour and that of my friends as we become parents.

Unsurprisingly, I found that parenthood it involves a huge increase in waste (disposable nappies), laundry (reusable nappies – yes, I’ve dabbled in both!) and general levels of consumption (car seats, cots, high chairs… and that’s just for the beginning of my daughter’s life, throughout which she’ll almost certainly consume a lot more).

In my largely middle-class community in the UK, second-hand items aren’t usually valued unless they’re branded as ‘vintage’ or ‘shabby chic’. But I’ve lost count of the number of events, online forums and Facebook groups dedicated to finding second-hand equipment for their offspring.

So why do new parents suddenly accept second-hand items for their precious little ones? And are there any lessons to learn for encouraging behaviour change for sustainability? Here are my initial thoughts:

1. Novel (and mass) purchases

For first-time parents, baby equipment is completely new – and many of them are purchased together, before the baby is born. That makes them more aware of the comparisons and choices they’re making, and of the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ they’re acquiring.

Can we make purchasing lots of products more obvious to consumers, and therefore a bigger deal? For example, can we remind consumers of all the other, similar purchases they’ve made, so buying a t-shirt is seen as adding to the large amount of clothing they’ve bought already this year?

2. ‘Try before you buy’ goes out of the comfort zone

Parents are often given lots of second-hand clothes by well-meaning friends and relative – whether they want them or not! This injection of freebies may well convince them that second-hand clothes are ‘safe’ to buy.

Can we help consumers to become more comfortable with sustainable choices – especially if those choices have a status implication, like second-hand items – by allowing them to have the first few for free? Lots of brands give out free samples… but can we do so in a way that challenges their assumptions about the product?

3. Status exceptions

The category ‘baby stuff’ is acknowledged to be expensive, so it’s socially acceptable to buy second-hand equipment among those groups who otherwise shun reused items. And, of course, babies have none of the status concerns of adults, so they don’t mind wearing second-hand clothes or using second-hand products.

Can we create more categories like this one, in which we’re exempt from normal status rules? In the UK, for example, meat is becoming less of a ‘status’ food, and we’re more accepting of the reasons people give (ethics, environment, health) for choosing some meat-free meals.

4. Designed with a little terror in mind

Children go through clothes, toys and other equipment in a matter of weeks or months. Unlike adult-targeted products with such a short life, the products need to be robust or they won’t survive very long. That means they’re still in good condition when they have outlived their use with their first owner, and it seems more of a waste to throw them away.

Can we design more products so that they have a longer lifespan than the average use by their first user, so that consumers feel it’s a waste of a good product if they don’t pass it on? What would happen if mobile phones were still as good as new once the new version came out?

5. Size matters

Car seats, buggies, high chairs, cots, changing tables… they’re all big, they all take up space, and once the baby has finished with them, you want them all out of your house as quickly as possible. In this case, reusing products is driven as much by primary users wishing to get rid of them as it is by secondary users wishing to buy them.

Can we find a way for products to become an inconvenience to the primary user once they’re ready to be passed onto someone else?

As you can see, I’m at the beginning of my thought process on many of these ideas. If you can build on them, I’d love to know about it – please leave a comment below!

Image: Diaper Rainbow by Heather is licensed under CC BY 2.0